Hot and crispy, seasoned with salt and vinegar and accompanied by a side dish of mushy peas... it’s fish and chips, of course! There is nothing more British than fish and chips; and yet, this hugely popular dish was not even invented by the British. It originated five hundred years ago, when thousands of Jewish people from Spain and Portugal sought refuge from religious persecution.
During the Middle Ages, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace in the Iberian Peninsula. However, in the 15th century the Spanish Inquisition started persecuting all non-Christians. Many Jews fled to England, taking with them their culinary traditions. In Judaism, cooking is not allowed on the Sabbath, so Sephardic Jewish families prepared food on Friday that would last the next twenty-four hours, and that could be eaten cold. One of the dishes that they used to prepare in England was a white fish (usually, cod or haddock) coated in flour and deep-fried. The batter preserved the fish in perfect condition until the next day.
A STREET FOOD HIT
The Jewish immigrants started selling their fried fish on the streets, and the British people loved it. In the 19th century, the availability of inexpensive fish and improvements in the transportation system made fish more accessible to everyone, and the consumption of Jewish-style fried fish skyrocketed.
It is unclear who had the idea of pairing fish with chips, but by 1860 the first fish-and-chip shops started to open. They were a great success; by the late 1920s, there were about 35.000 of them in the United Kingdom.
AN ESSENTIAL CLASSIC
The popularity of fish and chips soon made the dish a British staple. Fish-and-chip shops or ‘chippies’ remained open during World War One to boost morale, and Winston Churchill referred to a steaming plate of fish and chips as “the good companion”.
During the war years, fish and chips were served wrapped in newspaper. This tradition was maintained until the 1980s, when experts advised against it as the ink was in contact with the batter and could be toxic.
Traditionally, salt and vinegar seasoning is common with fish and chips. However, each country has its own preferences: Australians add tartar sauce, Belgians prefer mayonnaise, and Scots serve the dish with brown sauce. Some people even add ketchup.